To call me a bookworm would be a pretty accurate statement. My heart races when I enter a library or bookstore; I have more books than I have space to house them; I was an English major in university. Reading pretty much rivals gardening in my world (rather, they compliment each other very well as far as hobbies go).
But I’ve never been one to pick up – what do they call this? – non-fiction/history. Mike Dash‘s account of tulip mania in his book Tulipomania: The story of the world’s most coveted flower and the extraordinary passions it aroused might be enough to make me rethink that position.
We’ve all heard about the tulip frenzy of 17th century Holland – it’s used, often scoffingly, in textbooks to illustrate the term “economic bubble” – and even gardeners wonder how the Dutch could have paid the equivalent of hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single bulb.
Dash’s account does more than explain it: he makes it seem almost inevitable. And instead of dismissing the tulip traders as greedy slimeballs, you actually feel sorry for them. As Dash writes, at a time when “almost all Dutch artisans worked long hours for low wages” the “idea that one could earn a good living by planting bulbs … must have been irresistible.” Dash is great at drawing the reader into this world with his vivid descriptions. You almost feel present in the smoky, boozy taverns where most of the trading took place.
But my favourite part of the book is actually the beginning – before the tulip even makes it to Europe. Tulips were huge in the Ottoman Empire, and were especially beloved by the Sultans. Dash spends a significant portion of the book describing the gardens of Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, a place I have visited (but at the time was more fascinated by the tile work and lavish furnishings of the harem). Tulips were of “tremendous symbolic importance” and were regarded as “the flower of God because, in Arabic script, the letters which make up lale, the Turkish word for ‘tulip’, are the same as those which form ‘Allah’.
And you’ve gotta love this: “Because all flowers belong to heaven, gardeners will surely go to paradise to continue their work.”
I can’t reconcile that with this, however: the Sultan’s royal gardeners (see image, below), called bostancis, also served as executioners! Can you imagine? You make it to head gardener, but you also have to sew condemned women into weighted sacks and drop them into the Bosphorus? Yikes. I’d love to find out more about this unusual list of responsibilities.